Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, the Minotaur, the Great Mothers, Dionysus, and the rest of the Minoan pantheon. Modern Minoan Paganism is an independent polytheist spiritual tradition that brings the gods and goddesses of the ancient Minoans alive in the modern world. We're a revivalist tradition, not a reconstructionist one; we rely heavily on shared gnosis and the practical realities of Paganism in the modern world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

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Dionysos, Bulls, and Funerals

Over at Ariadne’s Tribe we’ve been developing a liturgy for Modern Minoan Paganism – a yearly calendar of sacred events and their meanings, along with tidbits about the deities who are involved with each one. Throughout the year, Dionysos plays a big part in Minoan spirituality. In fact, he’s the most prominent god, to the point that the Greeks compared him to their Zeus. In addition to his well-known associations with wine, Dionysos also figures as the dying-and-reborn god of the solar year, an aspect that adds quite a few layers to his presence. Lately I’ve been thinking about how his different festivals and annual milestones dovetail together, and what that might mean in terms of some of the well-known bits of life in ancient Crete, bull-leaping in particular.

Before we dive into this subject, it’s important to realize that Minoan civilization, in the form we’re accustomed to think of it, lasted for a solid 15 centuries, from roughly 3000 to 1500 BCE. During that time, the religious practices of the island shifted and changed, from fairly simple ancestor-based activities all the way to an official state religion run by the big temples. Alongside the official religion, the people always had their own home-based practices, which echoed the state religion in some ways and diverged from it in others. But throughout this time, Dionysos played a prominent role.

So when did Dionysos ‘do his thing’ in ancient Crete? In his aspect as a solar year-god, he was born to the Great Mother Goddess Rhea in her cave (or a ritual mockup of it in a temple) at Winter Solstice. At Summer Solstice, he emerged from his cave to display his full strength and glory and enact the hieros gamos – the sacred marriage – with Ariadne. Then, when the grape harvest took place in late August or early September, he died and retreated to the Underworld to await his rebirth at Midwinter.

I suspect that the Feast of the Grapes – the harvest-death of Dionysos – is the oldest of these holy days. Regardless, it dovetails well with the solar year-god cycle. And I think we can see ways in which it is related to the famous bull-leaping activities that are familiar from the frescoes and other artwork of ancient Crete.

Among the ancient Minoans, the animal most closely associated with Dionysos was the bull. In his aspect as Zagreus (‘the dismembered one,’ not to be confused with the later Greek Zeus) he was the sacrificial bull whose blood fed the denizens of the Underworld so they would share oracular information with the living. In other words, Dionysos was originally a shamanic god, though the spiritworking practices associated with him became formalized as the power of the temples in Knossos and the other Minoan cities grew.

One of the things we’re doing in Ariadne’s Tribe and my online classes is using multiply corroborated gnosis to work out a functional modern spiritual practice. Unlike reconstructionist traditions, we don’t have any texts to guide us (the Minoan language written with the Linear A script is still undeciphered) so we meditate and do spiritwork and then share notes to see where our experiences overlap or ‘click’ with each other's. One thing we’ve figured out is that the sacral knot is somehow a symbol of Dionysos’ birth. Whether it’s emblematic of his umbilical cord, or a supporting garment that Rhea holds onto during labor and childbirth, or both at the same time, it stands for the safe and successful birth of Dionysos at Midwinter (a divine child born to a consort-less woman in a cave at Winter Solstice – sound familiar?). If this is the case, then the faience sacral knots that are designed to be hung up are a kind of Winter Solstice decoration, perhaps put on display after sunrise on Solstice morning to celebrate the god’s birth. The thing is, though, the sacral knot also shows up in Minoan art alongside images of bull-leaping. What could that possibly mean? I have an idea.

Dionysos shows up at three important points during the Minoan spiritual year: Midwinter, Midsummer, and the grape harvest (late August to early September). At Midwinter, the focus is on his birth and images associated with that event. At Midsummer, the focus is on his emergence from Rhea’s cave and the divine marriage with Ariadne; this may be the event depicted on many of the seal rings that show a priest/priestess or god/goddess couple. At the Feast of Grapes, the focus is on his death. But what icons go with that event? I’d like to suggest that the practice of bull-leaping, which appeared fairly late as far as Minoan civilization is concerned, was the featured event at Dionysos’ funeral games.

Throughout the ancient world, funeral games were a common activity associated with the death of gods and, later on, prominent humans as well. It wouldn’t be out of place to think the Minoans held some sort of funeral games at the Feast of Grapes, especially once the religion grew to a formal state level. The local farmers probably still did their thing in the vineyards at harvest time, but the big temples needed activities as well. The bull was Dionysos’ animal, so what better focus for his funeral games than bull-leaping?

Having the bull-leaping as part of the funeral games at the Feast of Grapes would explain why, on dozens of seal stones, we find the sacral knot hovering in the air above bulls and, especially, above images of bull-leaping. The sacral knot identifies the bull-leaping as an activity associated with Dionysos and, for his worshipers, is a comforting reminder of the fact that, even though he has just died along with the grape harvest, he will be reborn at Midwinter.

UPDATE: Our research now suggests that the bull was associated with Dionysus very late in the game, perhaps during the Mycenaean occupation of Crete at the end of Minoan times, in much the same way that he became a solar year-king toward the end of Minoan civilization and became the Young God who was born at Midwinter. The original deity associated with the bull would have been Tauros Asterion. So if the bull-leaping was a facet of a god's funeral games, it was probably his for centuries before the Mycenaean occupation, and would have been celebrated at a point in the year that was appropriate for Tauros Asterion's mythos (possibly at the grain harvest in the spring, since that's when Tauros Asterion's aspect of Zagreus dies, or rather, is sacrificed and descends to the Underworld). This is one of the more interesting issues regarding Minoan religion: Like the Egyptians, the Minoans were "spiritual hoarders" - they didn't remove one set of beliefs and practices when another one came along, so by the end, there were many different layers of Minoan mythology and spiritual practice. Fascinating!

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen!

[Updated 15 August 2020]

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Laura Perry is an artist, writer, and the founder and facilitator of Modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. Her first book was published in 2001; one of her most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. She has also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.


  • Thesseli
    Thesseli Wednesday, 01 July 2015

    Very nice!

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 02 July 2015

    Funny, I'd just written up a piece on bull-leaping myself.

    Must be something in the air.:)

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